John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes

Infobox actor
name = John Cassavetes

caption = Cassavetes appearing as Johnny Staccato in the critically acclaimed TV series of the same name
birthname = John Nicholas Cassavetes
birthdate = birth date|1929|12|9|mf=y
location = New York, New York
deathdate = death date and age|1989|2|3|1929|12|9|mf=y
deathplace = Los Angeles, California
restingplace = Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, Los Angeles, California
restingplacecoordinates = Plot: Lot 308 Gps (Lat/Lon): 34.05882, -118.44145
othername = Nick Colasanto
occupation = Actor, Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Editor
yearsactive = 1951 - 1985
spouse = Gena Rowlands (1954-1989 (his death))
children = Nick Cassavetes (b. 1959)
Alexandra Cassavetes (b. 1965)
Zoe R. Cassavetes (b. 1970)
awards = Golden Lion
1980 "Gloria"
Golden Berlin Bear
1984 "Love Streams"

John Nicholas Cassavetes (December 9, 1929February 3, 1989) was an American actor, screenwriter, and director. He appeared in many Hollywood films, and is considered a pioneer of American independent film.

Early life

Cassavetes was born in New York City, the son of Katherine Demetri (who was to feature in some of his films) and Nicholas John Cassavetes, Greek immigrants to the U.S. His early years were spent with his family in Greece; when he returned, at the age of seven, he spoke no English. [ Cf. "Cassavetes Directs", by Michael Ventura, 2007; ISBN 10: 1-84243-228-1; p. 176.] He grew up in Long Island, New York and attended high school at Blair Academy in New Jersey before moving to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. On graduation in 1950, he continued acting in the theater, took small parts in films, and began working on television in anthology series such as "Alcoa Theatre".

Early films and acting

During this time he met and married actress Gena Rowlands. By 1956, Cassavetes had begun teaching method acting in workshops in New York City. An improvisation exercise in one workshop inspired the idea for his writing and directorial debut, "Shadows" (1959). Cassavetes raised the funds for production from friends and family, as well as listeners to Jean Shepherd's late-night radio talk show "Night People".

Cassavetes was unable to get American distributors to carry "Shadows", so he took it to Europe, where it won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival. European distributors later released the movie in the United States as an import. Although the viewership of "Shadows" in the United States was slight, it did gain attention from the Hollywood studios. Cassavetes directed two movies for Hollywood in the early 1960s — "Too Late Blues" and "A Child Is Waiting".

He also played Johnny Staccato in a late 50s television series about a jazz pianist who also worked as a detective. It was broadcast on NBC between September 1959 and March 1960, when it was acquired by ABC. Although critically acclaimed, the series was cancelled in September 1960. He performed as an actor in films such as "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as an impudent, insubordinate condemned soldier, and in Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) as a two-faced actor. Other notable appearances include the role of the victim in Don Siegel's "The Killers", and as a vicious government nemesis to Kirk Douglas in "The Fury" (1978).

His next film as a director (and his second independent film) was "Faces", starring his wife Rowlands as well as John Marley, Seymour Cassel and Val Avery. It depicts a contemporary marriage in slow disintegration. "Faces" was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress). Around this time, Cassavetes formed "Faces International" as a distribution company to handle all of his films.

"Husbands" (1970) stars Cassavetes himself with Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. They play a trio of married men on a spree in New York and London after the funeral of one of their best friends. "Minnie and Moskowitz," about two unlikely lovers, has Rowlands with Seymour Cassel. He played opposite Peter Falk again in 1972, in the film "", playing the pianist and murderer Alex Benedict.


His three films of the 1970s were produced independently. "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974) stars Rowlands as an increasingly troubled housewife named Mabel. Mabel is probably the most extreme example of the complexity of Cassavetes’ characters, but she serves purpose in highlighting how Cassavetes treats an offbeat protagonist in a completely different manner than in Hollywood productions.In A Woman Under the Influence, Mabel is not ‘sane’ by societal standards, but her real problem is that she lives to please everybody else and not herself, hence the name of the film, and Nick, her husband, is not overly demonised even though he lashes out and hits Mabel when she is acting too hospitably towards his company in the famous spaghetti dinner scene. Nick loves his wife; evident by the way he is so consumed with guilt after sending Mabel to the institution that he lashes out at a co-worker for making light of the situation, or shown further through his excitement and fancy dress to welcome Mabel home. Thus, there are no easy answers, no good and evil, and no transparency of motivation to help the audience understand and relate to a character’s actions.To understand Mabel, or any Cassavetes character for that matter, one must closely observe their performance. It’s not what they say; it’s how they say, or don’t say it. Rowlands captured the character of Mabel so well that she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, while Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director.

In "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976), Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a small-time strip-club owner with an out-of-control gambling habit, pressured by mobsters to commit a murder to pay off his debt. "Opening Night" (1977) has Gena Rowlands as lead actress with Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Joan Blondell. Rowlands portrays an aging film star named Myrtle Gordon working in the theater and suffering a personal crisis. Alone and unloved by her colleagues, in fear of age and always at a remove from others on account of her stardom, she succumbs to alcohol and hallucinations after witnessing the accidental death of a young fan. Ultimately she fights through this, delivering the performance of her life in a play. According to Laurence Gavron, Cassavetes worked on the screenplay for several years, refining and altering it. The production cost more than 1.5 million dollars and took more than one year to complete. The first cut was over five hours long, and only one copy of the final version was released in the United States.

Late career and family legacy

Cassavetes directed the film "Gloria" (1980) featuring Rowlands as a Mob who tries to protect an orphan boy whom the Mob want to kill. She earned another best-actress nomination for it. "Love Streams" (1984) featured Cassavetes as an aging swain who suffers the overbearing affection of his recently divorced sister. His last film, "Big Trouble" (1986), was taken over during filming from Andrew Bergman, who wrote the original screenplay.

Cassavetes died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1989 at the age of 59. He was survived by Rowlands and three children (Nick, Alexandra and Zoe).

His son, Nick Cassavetes, followed in his father's footsteps as an actor ("Face/Off", "Life") and director, and made the 1997 film "She's So Lovely" from a screenplay written by his father. He also directed 2002's "John Q" and 2004's "The Notebook", which also starred Rowlands. Alexandra Cassavetes directed the documentary, "" in 2004 and served as 2nd Unit Director on her brother's film "Alpha Dog" in 2006. Lastly, his youngest daughter, Zoe Cassavetes both wrote and directed the 2007 film, "Broken English" featuring Rowlands and Parker Posey.

Many of John Cassavetes' films are now owned by Faces Distribution, a company overseen by Gena Rowlands and Julian Schlossberg. with Castle Hill Productions distributing.


The role of improvisation in Cassavetes' films is frequently misunderstood. His films were — with the exception of the original version of "Shadows" — heavily scripted. Confusion arises in part because Cassavetes allowed actors to bring their own interpretations of characters to their performances. Performances were scripted, but delivery was not.

Film Methodology

Cassavetes offered a formula that differed greatly from that of the Hollywood studio system, both in method and final product.His films were not easy to watch; filled with awkward and gut wrenching moments and complex characters that were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and for the most part unreadable, they usually did not even offer the audience a concrete narrative story line to follow. For Cassavetes, it was more about the characters themselves, the moments of expressional truth sealed within an interaction, a look, or an awkward pause, than how the story necessarily played out.

Aside from presenting difficult characters whose inner desires were not easily understood, he paid little attention to the “impressionistic cinematography, linear editing, and star-centred scene making ” Bendedetto, Lucio. “Forging an Original Response: A Review of Cassavetes Criticism in English.” Post Script. V. 11 n. 2. (Winter 1992): 101. that are fashionable in both Hollywood and art films. Instead, he chose to shoot mostly hand held with general lighting, or documentary style, to accommodate the spontaneity of his actors. Further, Cassavetes’ methodology was completely unconventional by Hollywood standards from the way he created a communal atmosphere on set with no class structure, to shooting in continuity, everything he did defied standard filmmaking practice and he came to embody an American counter-culture independent film movement that would come to prominence in the sixties and seventies on the heels of his groundbreaking first film, Shadows. Cassavetes unorthodox characters represented the filmmaker’s vision of breaking down our learned societal forms of expression, for which Hollywood is one of many teachers, in an effort to depict true human emotion on screen while his methodology in both production and shooting represented, like his films, a shift away from the normal monetary driven productions of Hollywood. Thus, while Hollywood reinforces conformity and the American dream along with all of the commonly held social values that come with it, Cassavetes aimed to present humanity in its truest form, depicting and championing those characters who did not conform to social standards of self expression, just as he himself refused to conform to cinematic standards, both in content and methodology.The performances that Cassavetes elicited from his subjects were entirely different from the Hollywood standard whereby a character conveys his or her feelings and inner desires through clearly spoken, well-articulated lines, or a director gives the audience insight through more complex mise en scene.

Cassavetes characters were neither simple nor readable because human beings are complex and his films are an attempt to reflect our true nature. As well, Cassavetes was never interested in working with an actor or actress that was more concerned with their own personal image than with the character’s that they were portraying which is why he rarely, if ever, had actors or actresses of any merit (other than Gena Rowlands who was his wife) in his films. As Cassavetes himself said, he strived “to put [actors] in a position where they may make asses of themselves without feeling they’re revealing things that will eventually be used against them.” Gelmis, Joseph. “John Cassavetes.” The Film Director as Superstar. London: Seckler & Warburg, 1971, Pg. 80. Cassavetes unorthodox characters aimed to portray our inner desires of self-expression, thus moving away from learned social practices that Hollywood movies both reflected and still perpetuate. Hollywood has always been concerned with portraying simple, universal emotions in accordance with a narrative story line, Cassavetes was concerned with individual emotional expression above all.

Cassavetes unorthodox characters reflected his similarly unconventional methodology in the making of his films. He employed mostly his friends as actors and on set personnel, who would generally work for little or no money guaranteed and would share in the profits of the film if there were any. Both Shadows and Faces, two of his earlier films, were shot over a four-year period on weekends and whenever funds became available. Because the set was in essence, a collective, there was no formal class structure meaning. Cassavetes liked working in this environment because he felt that for his intensely personal and emotionally powerful films to work, he needed everybody on set to feel like the film was theirs. “The hardest thing for a filmmaker, or a person like me,” he once said, “is to find people…who really want to do something…They’ve got to work on a project that’s theirs.” Gelmis, Joseph. “John Cassavetes.” The Film Director as Superstar. London: Seckler & Warburg, 1971. Pg 79. This on-set methodology differs greatly from the 'director run' sets of big budget Hollywood productions

Marshall Fine details in his book, Accidental Genius, that “Cassavetes, who provided the impetus of what would become the independent film movement in America…spent the majority of his career making his films ‘off the grid’ so to speak…unfettered by the commercial concerns of Hollywood.” To make the kind of films he wanted to, it was essential to work in this ‘communal,’ ‘off the grid’ atmosphere because Hollywood’s “basis is economic rather than political or philosophical,” Powdermaker, Hortense. “Hollywood: The Dream Factory.” Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1950. Pg 327. and no Hollywood executives were interested in Cassavete’s in depth study of human behaviour. Indeed, he mortgaged his house to acquire the funds to shoot A Woman Under the Influence instead of seeking money from an investor who would try and change the script to make the film more marketable.

Cassavetes films were no doubt original and ignoring the studio system in production methodology allowed him to further explore realms of human nature that films overly concerned with turning profit could never do. So while Hollywood reinforced the American dream to keep people in their state of metaphorical sleep, Cassavetes fought feverishly to show them that our social codes of expression are learned, and thus fabricated, in an attempt to wake them up.


In September 2004, The Criterion Collection produced a Region 1 DVD box set of his five independent films: "Shadows", "Faces", "A Woman Under The Influence", "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" and "Opening Night". Also featured in the set is a documentary about the life and works of Cassavetes called "A Constant Forge" along with a booklet featuring critical assessments of the director's work, along with tributes by old friends. In 2005, a box set of the same five films was released in Region 2 by Optimum Releasing. The Optimum DVD of "Shadows" has a voice-over commentary by Seymour Cassel that has numerous mistakes about the first and second versions of the film, which are documented on Ray Carney's web site. [ [ A Chronology of Cassavetes–Related Events, 1979-2007 (Page 4) ] ]

Cassavetes is also the subject of several books about the actor/filmmakers life. "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" is a collection of interviews collected or conducted by Boston University film scholar Ray Carney, in which the late filmmaker recalls his experiences, influences and outlook in the film industry. In the Oscar 2005 edition of "Vanity Fair" magazine, one of the articles features a tribute to Cassavetes with three members of his stock company: Rowlands, and actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk.

In the Robert Crais books The Monkey's Raincoat and Stalking the Angel the main character Elvis Cole is noted to look like John Cassavetes '20 years ago'. He also uses the name Johhny Staccato when giving his details to an apartment guard.

Washington D.C. band Fugazi recorded a tribute on 1993 record 'In on the Killtaker' called "Cassavetes".

Jem Cohen's film about the band, 'Instrument' is dedicated to Cassavetes, as well as D. Boon of the 1980s punk rock band the Minutemen.

New York City band Le Tigre released 'What's Yr Take On Cassavetes?', on their self-titled album, featuring a debate between two widely-opinionated individuals on the actor. This is exemplified by the song featuring two vocalists, each of them being used to assert these differing opinions.

On the album "The Gap" (2000) by Chicago band Joan of Arc, there is a song titled "John Cassavetes, Assata Shakur, and Guy Debord Walk Into a Bar.."

The season finale of Moral Orel entitled "Nature, Part 2" on July 15, 2007 was dedicated to John Cassavetes.

Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky" (1976), featuring Falk and Cassavetes, was an overt homage to Cassavetes in cultural / thematic scope, cinematography, and the improvisational nature of the acting.

In the 1993 Denis Leary song "I'm an Asshole" Leary states he is going to get "The Duke" (John Wayne), John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Sam Peckinpah and a case of whiskey then drive down to Texas before being cutoff by a bandmate and getting called an asshole.

The Hold Steady's 2008 album Stay Positive makes various allusions to Cassavetes's Opening Night, the closing song "Slapped Actress" being the most explicit.


As Director

* "Shadows" (1959)
* "Too Late Blues" (1961)
* "A Child Is Waiting" (1963)
* "Faces" (1968)
* "Husbands" (1970)
* "Minnie and Moskowitz" (1971)
* "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974)
* "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976)
* "Opening Night" (1977)
* "Gloria" (1980)
* "Love Streams" (1984)
* "Big Trouble" (1986)

As Actor

* "Taxi" (1953)
* "I'll Cry Tomorrow" (1955)
* "The Night Holds Terror" (1955)
* "Crime in the Streets" (1956)
* "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (1956) Episode: "You Got to Have Luck"
* "Edge of the City" (1957)
* "Affair in Havana" ((1957)
* "Virgin Island" (1958)
* "Saddle the Wind" (1958)
* "Shadows" (1959)
* "The Webster Boy" (1962)
* "Too Late Blues" (1962)
* "The Killers" (1964)
* "The Dirty Dozen" (1967)
* "Rome Like Chicago" (1967)
* "Bandits in Rome" (1967)
* "Devil's Angels" (1967)
* "Rosemary's Baby" (1968)
* "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" (1969)
* "Husbands" (1970)
* "Minnie and Moskowitz" (1971)
* "Capone" (1975)
* "Two-Minute Warning" (1976)
* "Mikey and Nicky" (1976)
* "Opening Night" (1977)
* "Brass Target" (1978)
* "The Fury" (1978)
* "Flesh and Blood (TV)" (1979)
* "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" (1981)
* "The Incubus" (1981)
* "Tempest" (1982)
* "The Incubus" (1982)
* "Tempest" (1982)
* "The Haircut" (1982)
* "Marvin and Tige" (1983)
* "Love Streams" (1984)


External links

*imdb name|0001023
* [ Marshall Fine: "Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film," 2006]
* [ Ray Carney: John Cassavetes]
* [ Reviews]
* [ Essay: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie]
* [ Senses of Cinema essay]
* [ John Cassavetes]
* [ Bright Lights Film Journal: John Cassavetes]
* [ Interview (07/1971)]
* [ Essay on Cassavetes' first film, Shadows]
* []
* [ Castle Hill Productions, curator and distributor of most of Cassavetes' material]
* [ The Religious Affiliation of Director John Cassavetes]

NAME= Cassavetes, John
ALTERNATIVE NAMES= Cassavetes, John Nicholas
SHORT DESCRIPTION= Actor, Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Editor
DATE OF BIRTH= 1929-12-9
PLACE OF BIRTH= New York, New York
DATE OF DEATH= 1989-2-3
PLACE OF DEATH= Los Angeles, California

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